Choreographing the Steps of Life, Death


To this day, choreographer George Faison can see the herd of graceful gazelles that blanketed the faraway hill in the African game preserve. The year was 1967, and the young dancer was on his first tour of Africa with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

"I was struck by how fragile life is, and how little it takes for paradise to dissolve," Faison recently explained by phone from his home in New York. So a few years later, when he started to choreograph for his own company, Universal Dance Experience Company, the fragile beauty of those animals came back to him.

"Gazelle" became the first part of the 1971 "Slaves," which has been revived this season by the Ailey troupe. The work, a highlight of the Ailey company's four-day run at the Music Center, will be presented tonight, and on Saturday another New York-based company, Ballet Hispanico, will present a more recent Faison choreography, the 1997 "Idol Obsession," based on the life and murder of Tejano singer Selena, at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Theatre.

Judith Jamison, Ailey artistic director, explained her reason for resurrecting "Slaves" during the company's stopover in the Bay Area last week. Faison, she said, is the kind of humanistic artist from whom she wants to acquire a block of work. ("Slaves" joins Faison's better-known "Suite Otis"--an exploration of conflict and reconciliation set to the music of Otis Redding--in the Ailey repertoire.)

"Dance is not just about steps. Something has to be communicated," said Jamison. "You should learn something about yourself that you did not know before. At the very least, it should start a questioning process."

Jamison also remembered when she and Faison danced together in the Ailey company. "Alvin saw [at the time] that George was hearing a different drummer, so he told him to go out and drum," she said.

In fact, Faison went on to a multifaceted career as a dancer, writer and choreographer. His work on Broadway won him, among other awards, a Tony for "The Wiz"; his film and television credits include "The Cotton Club," "The Josephine Baker Story" (for which he won an Emmy nomination) and "The Cosby Show."

To bring back "Slaves," Faison first tried to contact some of his former dancers, scattered after he closed down Universal Dance in 1975. Sadly, he said, "so many of the men are gone, and many of the women have forgotten [the details]."

Yet, in the end, he found the reconstruction surprisingly easy.

"The memory [of the dance] really is in my blood and in my muscles. All I needed was to hear the music again to realize that the dance exists, it has a life of its own." He made some cuts and introduced a new score for the finale, "Sing Out" by a young singer from Georgia, Jeremy Old.

The first section of "Slaves" depicts the daily activities, including the hunt of a gazelle, in an African village, an idyllic way of life that is destroyed by slave traders. The scene then shifts to the desperate circumstances on a slave ship. Interspersing hopelessness and dejection with dreams of what was and what could be, Faison proceeds to evoke an at-first unsuccessful and finally triumphant revolt against bondage and resignation.

The New York Times in December praised "Slaves" for its "communicative punch" and the "sheer dance power of the current Ailey dancers, [which gives this new production] an amazing force and projection." The San Francisco Chronicle more recently called it "a searing, entertaining dance as well as a celebration of the human spirit."

Comparisons with "Amistad," the Steven Spielberg movie that also recounts a slave ship rebellion, are almost inevitable. Faison understands the parallel but recalls that when he created "Slaves," he had never even heard of a ship called Amistad. "At that point we knew very little about our history; we were just discovering it. But it was the aftermath of the civil rights struggles and the time of the 'Black Is Beautiful' movement, and I just knew that not all the slaves would have gone down that easily."

For his newest choreography, "Idol Obsession," Faison again went back to the image of fragility those gazelles had impressed on him so many years ago. "Obsession" evokes the life and death of singer Selena through a series of vignettes. To Faison, her story--stardom, then death at the hands of a fan--tells us all something about the ephemeral quality of human life. "She was the essence of youth, and her emergence as a star was incredible, and yet it could not be sustained."

The dance, he says, pays tribute to Selena's passion for "life, love and fun" but does so in the context of celebrating life in the presence of death. Two figures, one of death, the other of life, weave in and out of the piece. They are the ones who envelop Selena in the end, remaking the pop diva into a different sort of icon.

Working with border music and movement, he claims, wasn't too big a stretch--the language is still dance.

"I'm not Hispanic," Faison says, "but I understand and admire the culture. And I recognize [the eloquence of] a deep plie; I know how to make a heel speak."


* "Slaves," Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, today, 8 p.m. (the Ailey company presents a different program Saturday, 8 p.m. and Sunday, 2 p.m.), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., $15 to $55. (213) 365-3500. "Idol Obsession," Ballet Hispanico, Saturday, 8 p.m., Luckman Theater, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive, $20 to $40. (213) 343-6600.

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